Lucy F. Simms School Oral Histories
Prior to its closure due to integration in 1965, the Lucy F. Simms School played a vital role in the Black community in Harrisonburg and beyond. In the summer of 2022, Celebrating Simms embarked on a year-long oral history project to celebrate and preserve the memories of students who attended Simms before it closed its doors. These recorded sessions were conducted by current high school students from Spotswood and Turner Ashby high schools in Rockingham County as part of their 2022-2023 African American History elective course work.
Below, you can access the full, unedited audio recordings and transcripts of the complete set of oral histories. Find out what students thought of participating in the project by scrolling through this short slideshow:
The project was designed by English Studies teachers from Rockingham County high schools in collaboration with students, faculty and graduate students from JMU’s College of Education, technology experts and graduate student assistants from JMU Libraries, and the Celebrating Simms team. It was supported by the Rockingham County Public Schools District, The Lucy F. Simms Center for Continuing Education, and, from within JMU, the Colleges of Education and Arts and Letters and JMU Libraries.
We are hugely in debt to the students of the former Simms school who shared their time, memories, and wisdom with us. This project would not have been possible without their generosity and spirit.
Mr. Howard Curry attended the Lucy F. Simms School between 1949 and 1961. In this oral history, Mr. Curry emphasizes how supportive his teachers were and how the school served as a vital space of togetherness and opportunity for Harrisonburg’s Black community. He discusses life pre- and post-segregation, his love for jazz and the arts, and military service. Mr Curry also recalls how the Simms basketball team winning the 1960 state championship was a proud moment for the Newtown neighborhood.
Sam Ewell attended the Simms School for third, fourth and fifth grade. Elizabeth Rohrer attended for first, second, and third grade. In this oral history, Sam and Elizabeth share their memories of growing up in Harrisonburg, Virginia. They discuss their experiences as part of the African American community in Harrisonburg during the 1950s and 1960s, including memories of family gatherings, church activities, and visits to local stores. They also highlight the importance of family and community support during their childhood.
Mr. Billo Harper attended the Lucy F. Simms School between 1957 and 1966. In this oral history, Mr. Harper praises Newtown's strong community spirit and the school's role within it. He discusses key community events such as lawn parties, May Day, and basketball games. Mr Harper also discusses a wide range of topics such as his daily routine, the dedication of teachers who trained at historically Black colleges, his role as basketball manager for the Simms team, and entrepreneurial endeavors.
Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson attended the Lucy F. Simms School between 1954 and 1964. In this oral history, Dr. Johnson remembers dedicated yet firm teachers who expected the best from their students. She discusses participating in a variety of activities such as school musicals, choir, and the annual May Day celebrations. She discusses her decision to become one of the first Black students to attend Harrisonburg High School, and explains how her chosen profession as a librarian was deeply influenced by the many hours she spent in the school library at Simms.
Mrs. Mary Ann Smith Tucker attended the Lucy F. Simms School between 1958 and1966. In this oral history, Mrs. Smith Tucker recalls her dedicated but strict teachers during her time at Simms, and her participation in the annual May Day celebrations, choir, and Girl Scout troop. She also explores how Simms functioned as a central Black community hub, and the mixed feelings associated with desegregation because it resulted in new opportunities and the loss of a close knit community of friends, families, and teachers.
Mr. Lowell Toliver attended the Lucy F. Simms School between 1941 and 1952. In this oral history, Mr. Toliver discusses the teachers he had, the curriculum and classes he took, and the tight-knit community the school served. He remembers school events such as basketball games, operettas, and the annual May Day celebrations. Emphasizing the importance of education, he discusses the impact of the closure of Simms, his experience serving in the Korean War, and the challenges of integration.